Ergo Pink Fest: Character is fate & sisters start doing it for themselves in The Women of Casterbridge

Ergo Arts Theatre opened the Ergo Pink Fest at the Small World Music Centre at Artscape Youngplace last night. A three-day festival of new plays by female and non-binary identified playwrights, script criteria includes: “at least two women/non-binary people, who both have names; 2. These two people talk to each other; 3. They talk about something other than a man.” So these are Bechdel-tested works!

The festival opened with Claire Ross Dunn’s The Women of Casterbridge, a feminist retelling of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, directed by Diana Leblanc.

Sold in the market to a kind sailor (David Storch), by her drunken brute of a husband Michael Henchard (Patrick Galligan)—who blames them for his lack of social and financial opportunity and advancement—Susan (Catherine Fitch) and her four-year-old daughter Elizabeth Jane (Laura Schutt) leave England to live with the sailor, Richard Newson, in Newfoundland. Years later, after Newson is declared dead in a ship wreck and they’re evicted from their sailor’s lodgings, Susan (who is now quite ill) and Elizabeth Jane have no choice but to return to England in search of Henchard, in hopes that he will lend them some assistance and secure their survival.

In the intervening years, Henchard has quit drinking and sorted himself out, eventually owning a successful grain business and becoming the Mayor of Casterbridge. A miraculously changed man, when Susan finds him, he asks her forgiveness and plans to make things right. Elizabeth Jane is unaware of the circumstances that sent her and her mother away, so Henchard hatches a plan to woo Susan anew and marry her; in doing so, he must break off his understanding with his lover Lucetta (Kat Gauthier). He also has big plans for innovation with his business, convincing young Scot Donald Farfrae (Sergio Di Zio) to stay in Casterbridge and work with him. Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane, who is an unusually independent and strong-willed young woman for her time, are drawn to each other.

When Susan dies, Henchard decides to renew his relationship with Lucetta, newly returned to Casterbridge a wealthy heiress. She takes Elizabeth Jane, a like-minded independent woman, on as her companion; she also catches the eye of Farfrae, who favours her over Elizabeth Jane. Henchard’s inner demons of greed and pride rear their ugly heads; jealous of Farfrae’s popularity and charm, and of Lucetta’s interest in him, he fires him from the company and returns to the bottle, setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy that rolls out over the subsequent years. Turning his anger upon Lucetta, Henchard has letters from her that reveal their prior relationship, spelling her ruin if released. A group of townspeople (Marium Carvell, Stuart Clow and David Storch) catch wind of their earlier affair and make a public spectacle. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Jane, hungry for knowledge and “enlargement” herself, works hard and overcomes the heartache of losing Farfrae to Lucetta, who’d taken her on as a companion.

Excellent work from the entire—and mostly multitasking—cast. Chock full of melodramatic (and comedic) twists and turns, startling revelations and heartfelt confessions, Susan’s motto “character is fate” plays out for all.

Ergo Pink Fest continues in the Small World Music Centre this weekend, closing tomorrow (March 25). Coming up next at the Fest:

March 24 @ 1:30 pm: Being Helen by Laurie Fyffe, directed by Andrea Donaldson

March 24 @ 4:00 pm: The Sister Op by Shelley M. Hobbs, directed by Susan A. Lock

March 24 @ 8:00 pm: Witts: Ballad of the Queer Cowboys by Calla Wright, directed by Anna Pappas

March 25 @ 1:30 pm: The Next Mary by Mairy Beam, directed by Rebecca Picherack

March 25 @ 4:00 pm: Sol by Araceli Ferrara, directed by Anita La Selva

March 25 @ 6:45 pm: Manners by Nastasia Pappas-Kemps, directed by Sue Miner

The Fest also includes two free panels:

March 25, from 12:00 – 1:00 pm: Bridging the Gap: The Value of Mentorship and Relationships between Artists (Room 106). Mediator: Thalia Gonzalez Kane. Panelists: Tamara Almeida, Angela Besharah, Martha Burns, Erin Carter, Marcia Johnson, Heath V. Salazar.

March 25, from 5:00 – 6:30 pm: Colour. Culture. Curtain. Cross-racial Casting on Contemporary Stages (Room 106). Mediator: Nicole Stamp. Panelists: Dian Marie Bridge, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Tanisha Taitt, Paula Wing.

Check the full line-up details and book advance tickets. It’s an intimate venue, and last night was sold out and then some, so advance booking strongly recommended.

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The power of hope & community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts

Photo by Shaun Benson: Robert Persichini and Nabil Rajo in Superior Donuts

Coal Mine Theatre continues its 2016-17 season with the Canadian premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, directed by Ted Dykstra, and opening last night to a packed house and a standing ovation at its home at 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto.

When we first see Superior Donuts, the shop appears to have been abandoned. The shelves are empty, there’s litter strewn across the counter and floor, chairs and stools overturned, and the word “Pussy” has been spray painted in neon orange on the chalkboard green wall. As the play opens, though, we learn it’s been vandalized; and Max (Alex Poch-Goldin), who owns the neighbouring DVD store, is giving his account to police officers Randy Osteen (Darla Biccum) and James Bailey (Michael Blake) after calling it in. We also learn from Max that Superior Donuts owner Arthur (Robert Persichini) has been absent lately, and hasn’t opened the shop in a couple of days, as he mourns the loss of his ex-wife.

Arthur arrives as Max is finishing up with the police, already slow moving and numb as he takes in the damage, eventually realizing he’s missed his coffee delivery, so has no coffee to offer anyone. Left alone to tidy up, he’s roused by an insistent and persistent knock on the locked door; a kid responding to his help wanted notice. Arthur reluctantly opens the door to Franco (Nabil Rajo), a fast-talking young man with seemingly boundless energy; and after an unusual and certainly creative job interview, Franco is hired. Meanwhile, Franco has troubles of his own; bookie Luther (Ryan Hollyman) and his muscle Kevin (Jon Lachlan Stewart) pay him a visit after Kevin sees him working at the shop. Franco has a large gambling debt, and Luther is under extreme pressure from the powers that be—he wants his money now and the clock is running out for Franco.

Superior Donuts is the last of a dying breed of beloved mom and pop stores in an increasingly gentrified neighbourhood, where Starbucks and Whole Foods are popping up and challenging businesses that have been fixtures for years. It’s also an island of misfit toys, with its own cast of quirky, multicultural characters. There’s local regular Lady (Diana Leblanc), a struggling alcoholic with a love of red lipstick; and the outspoken Russian Max, who has big plans for expanding his DVD shop into an electronics empire and wants to buy the donut shop so he can fulfill his dream—these two get free coffee and donuts. We also get to know the two cops: Randy comes from a sports-loving family full of  brothers and cops, and has an eye for Arthur; and James and his wife are Star Trek fans who enjoy cosplay at fan conventions. And, while he’s largely silent with the others, Arthur speaks to us throughout in wistful, heartfelt and nostalgic monologues—personal history anecdotes filled with notes of regret.

Franco is full of ideas for improvement for Superior Donuts, from healthier menu choices to poetry and reading events. He also has ideas for improving Arthur, and sets out to be both style consultant and matchmaker. And he’s just finished writing the great American novel, written long-hand on notebooks and loose leaf over the course of seven years, an opus bound with a string. The kid is full of hope—something that Arthur has long been lacking—and as the relationship between Arthur and Franco grows, Franco’s enthusiasm becomes contagious and ideas start brewing in Arthur’s head about who they can talk to about publishing Franco’s book. He even decides to do something about Randy. Then, his despair, doubt and pessimism get the better of him—and Arthur lashes out at Franco’s youthful industry and optimism.

But when something happens to Franco, Arthur is spurred to action. Confronting Luther and Kevin, with the help of Max and his young relative Kiril (Paul Dods), Superior Donuts becomes the ground for one last fight.

Outstanding work from the cast; each a masterful storyteller as he/she speaks for his/her character. Persichini gives a profoundly moving performance as Arthur, a gentle giant who fled to Canada to evade the draft, returning to take over the family business established by his father the year he was born. Now deeply saddened by the passing of his ex-wife Magda and full of guilt at having lost touch with his daughter Joanie, his life is full of disappointment and regret, leaving him in hopelessness and despair—until Franco enters his life. Rajo is a delightful spark plug as Franco; a mercurial, smart and irreverent young man, there’s more to him than the hip, smart-ass kid he presents. A thoughtful, generous soul, his sense of hope is put to the test. Great chemistry, banter and candor in the Arthur/Franco two-handers.

Leblanc gives a lovely performance as the fragile, bird-like Lady; and the mutual love and care that Lady and Arthur have for each other are evident in some beautifully tender moments between them. Poch-Goldin is hilariously engaging as the blunt Max; he’s a go big or go home kind of guy who says what he thinks—and fiercely loyal. Biccum and Blake make a great pair as the police officer partners Randy and James. Biccum gives Randy some nice, gentle layers beneath the tomboy cop exterior; longing for something beyond her family legacy of sports and being on the job, she likes Arthur a lot but is too shy to go for it. And Blake brings an officer and a gentleman vibe to James; a good sport about the teasing from his friends and colleagues about his love of Star Trek, he’s a genuinely good man, out to serve and protect.

Hollyman brings a great edge of desperation and ruthlessness to Luther; Stewart’s Kevin is classic bad boy from the hood; and Dods is impressive as the ripped Kiril, a newly arrived immigrant with little English and a sweet soul under those abundant muscles.

The power of hope and community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts.

Superior Donuts continues to February 26; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Book in advance for this one folks—it’s an incredible show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances; box office opens at 6:45pm.

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